Today, the New Jersey Devils hosted the Arizona Coyotes in their final matinee game of the season. They sent the home fans happy with a 2-1 shootout win. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak and a five-game home losing streak.
The Coyotes would be coming into this afternoon’s matchup with a must-win mentality—Arizona started the game one point out of a wild card spot behind Minnesota. With seven players returning to the lineup in the last two days, you’d expect to see a solid opening lineup and strong play to start the game and some pep in the step of the newly-healthy Devils lineup. Instead, the Devils chose to start the fourth line of Quenneville-Rooney-McLeod against Arizona’s line with Lawson Crouse, a newly-healthy Derek Stepan who also made his return to playing tonight after missing ten games (On a side-note: Are Wood and Stepan using the same Miracle-Heal process that they were both injured around the same time, both predicted to be out 4-6 weeks, and both returned today in less than 4?) and Josh Archibald. Rooney would win the face-off and start what looked like it would be a solid period for the Devils. They controlled the play, spending the first two minutes in the Coyotes’ zone until a giveaway by Blake Coleman led to Arizona turning the play the other way and immediately scoring on their second shot attempt just two and a half minutes into the game. Oliver Ekman-Larsson put a wrist shot over the left shoulder of Blackwood with the help of a high-zone screen from Zajac and the Arizona winger he was tying up near the blue line.
The Devils responded well, though, and went on to control the play the rest of the first period. The Devils piled shots and chances on Arizona goalie Darcy Kuemper, who makes a solid campaign for MVP if the Coyotes manage to make the post-season with some of the worst offense in the league. The Captain Andy Greene contributed a slap shot of his own from the point that rang off the post. Miles Wood slipped a pass to Pavel Zacha in the slot for a huge net-front scoring chance but the lefty-to-lefty pass left the shot a hair too slow and Kuemper managed to get across for the save. The just-too-slow shot was a pattern for the Devils offense in the first period despite their high volume of chances—Nico Hischier found Kyle Palmieri for the Devils first odd man rush of the game, but Palmieri struggled to take the pass cleanly and couldn’t get the shot off. Minutes later Travis Zajac would catch a pass in the circle with Kuemper well out of position but couldn’t get into a shooting position with the puck in time to get a clean shot. Pavel Zacha, in his second game back in the lineup, continued to remind us of the Zacha we know and love as a solid two-way center by dropping back to cover on defense and playing a potential rush perfectly.
With so many players returning to the bench and the lines being practically unrecognizable from the past few weeks, a too many men call was probably unavoidable. A victim of their own sudden return to health, the Devils are caught on a bad chance and take the delay of game call 13 minutes into the first period. The penalty kill pulls through with the usual lineup of Coleman, Zajac, Greene, and Severson leading the charge, and the Devils return to 5 on 5 and continue to control the offensive zone. Though the shots were coming, the overwhelming majority of the Devils shots through the first period came from the points—a positive sign of Vatanen’s return to the lineup, but not great for scoring chances. Drew Stafford would decide to fix that and finally get a shot on net that’s less than forty feet out—this time through the legs of both the defenseman and Kuemper to tie the game at one. Late in the first period would see Miles Wood being, well, Miles Wood: in his first scoring chance after nearly a month’s absence from injury, Wood picks up the puck, motors down the ice wide, power moves around the defense, and promptly runs into the goalie on the shot attempt. No goal on the play but fortunately no penalty was called either. Arizona refused to let the first period end in a tie without a fight, and Alex Galchenyuk tried to split the defense for a last-minute shot on net but Sami Vatanen decided not to comply and sat Galchenyuk to the ice with a stiff shoulder to end the period.
The Coyotes decided their penalty kill stats could use some pumping up in this game, and decided to take a few minors in the second period. Starting with a high stick from Nick Cousins just two minutes in, Vinnie Hinostroza followed up by tripping McCleod less than a minute after the first penalty ended. The Devils utterly owned the puck for what was essentially a nearly five-minute man advantage. Compared to the lackluster powerplay efforts of recent games and considering the Coyotes are boasting the second-best penalty kill in the league complete with the league leader in short handed goals in Michael Grabner (6 SHGs this season), the Devils power play was positively sparkling. The return of healthy bodies meant the Devils could construct a pair of much more attractive power play lineups this game, starting with Palmieri, Zajac, Hischier, Coleman, and Severson. The second power play line, which did not come out at all for the second penalty, consisted of Stafford, Zacha, Agostino, Wood, and Vatanen. Chances from a Palmieri to Hischier pass, some Agostino and Zacha plays, and even a speedy power move from Kyle Palmieri around Ekman-Larsson that looked pleasantly similar to McDavid’s move against the veteran defenseman a few days ago (just without the goal-Kuemper tripped Palmieri up with the poke check) but the power play goals didn’t come for the Devils. Arizona offered a third chance with a delay of game call on defensive zone clear from Cousins, but this time their penalty kill looked much better. The Devils did still generate some offensive zone time but it wasn’t quite as suffocating as the first two.
The teams would continue to trade special teams through the second period as McLeod drew an interference penalty. Blake Coleman made a solid effort to try and show the Coyotes a short-handed goal of his own but was hauled down by Ekman-Larsson. The play was too far away from the Coyotes’ zone to be considered a breakaway worthy of a penalty shot but Ekman-Larsson would still go off for the trip and the Devils would take the offer of a 4-on-4 to a powerplay instead of finishing their own penalty kill. The Devils bad luck with sticky pucks refusing to be shot continued in this power play, as Zajac found Palmieri in the slot but he couldn’t get the puck where he wanted it before being battered by Kuemper and the Coyotes penalty kill defense. The chances kept coming for the Devils though as McLeod picked off an Arizona pass through the slot for a beautiful chance at his first NHL goal but was denied by Kuemper. Arizona turned the tide a bit in the second, out-shooting the Devils towards the end of the period but they’d go to the third still tied at one.
Arizona came out in the third period like a team that had something to play for and tilted the play in their favor for most of the first half of the period. McLeod tried to dampen their spirits and lift his own with a second chance at his first goal, but was slightly over-exuberant in his attempt to lift the pick over the low-sliding Kuemper and lifted it clear over the net. Kuemper, not to be out-done apparently, tried his own hand at lifting the puck a minute later and cleared it straight out of the rink, drawing a delay of game penalty for the Coyotes. The Devils power play again found Palmieri and Zajac in the slot but Kuemper refused to yield. Miles Wood, picking up some ice time on the second power play unit, loosed an utter canon of a slap shot at Kuemper from the point, but the PP still couldn’t buy a goal. Returning to 5 on 5, Wood and Zacha again tried to get a pass from Wood to Zacha in the slot but they were again turned down by the Arizona netminder. Then it was Hischier’s turn to try the speed up the outside to power move to the net but the third time was not the charm for the Devils with that play. They’d finish up the period with a bizarre floating puck mid-crease that was saved by a juggling Niklas Hjalmarsson to send the game to overtime.
Not content to let this game go without every ounce of drama we can drag out of it, the Devils would spend 2 minutes of overtime shorthanded. Palmieri would cross-check Ekman-Larsson less than a minute in to deny a breakaway attempt, and the team would be forced to go to 4-on-3 in OT without their leading scorer. Hynes opted to deploy the shorthanded powerhouse Greene along with Zajac and Kevin Rooney. Arizona would attempt to end the game with the lineup of Ekman-Larsson, Stepan, Keller, and Galchenyuk. In the final seconds of the man advantage Derek Stepan rung a shot off the post after it deflected off Blackwood, and Clayton Keller somehow hit another post moments later despite literally standing in the wide-open crease. Blackwood would get across and snuff out any rebound attempt and proceed to keep the play alive. Now playing 4-on-4, the combination of Miles Wood and Nico Hischier continues to be an interesting overtime story this season and they combined for an excellent shot from Hischier that wouldn’t go, and overtime would tick by scoreless.
Less than a week ago, we saw the Devils go to a shootout against the Vancouver Canucks that lasted seven rounds and was finally ended by Severson. They nearly achieved the same feat today as it went six rounds.
Round 1: Kyle Palmieri started the shootout with a backhand deke to the blocker side of Kuemper, who caught enough of the puck for the save. Nick Cousins opened up for Arizona and also tried to go blocker side on Blackwood but to no avail.
Round 2: Drew Stafford, resident clutch shootout specialist for the Devils, went in on Kuemper with a nice deke to the backhand but couldn’t get the lift over the leg pad. Alex Galchenyuk attempted almost the exact same move and got the same result.
Round 3: Damon Severson, last week’s shootout hero and the first Devils defenseman to ever score in a shootout, attempted to repeat that with effectively the same move as he tried against Vancouver - but he was denied. He didn’t fall this time, maybe that was the key. Vinnie Hinostroza moved in for the same backhand try as Galchenyuk, but Blackwood again denied him with the leg pad.
Round 4: Nico Hischier tried to go five-hole but Kuemper just got the pads sealed fast enough to prevent the goal. Clayton Keller moved in but Blackwood got his stick on the puck before Keller could do much with it.
Round 5: Blake Coleman tried to deke around Kuemper and was tripped up by the poke check, but he went for the Severson and scored while falling anyway. Conor Garland kept Arizona alive by finally getting a backhand try over the leg of Blackwood.
Round 6: Pavel Zacha took note of the close-call in Hischier’s five-hole attempt and tried that again. This time he got the wrist shot through the legs of Kuemper for a goal. Richard Panik tried for the high shot to keep the shootout going but rung it off the crossbar. And so the Devils won.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Five for Howling for their take on tonight’s game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Boys are Back in Town: On Thursday night, Pavel Zacha made his return from injury after missing 16 games from a concussion. This afternoon saw the return of several more bodies, turning the Devils back into the team we know and wanted to love earlier in the season. Miles Wood, who is apparently campaigning for a spot in the next Marvel movie with yet another demonstration of his miraculous healing ability, returns from a broken ankle in under 4 weeks. Mirco Mueller also made his return and may be joining him on that superhero signup sheet after somehow sustaining only a mild shoulder injury after that scary impact into the boards against Calgary. Nico Hischier (strained oblique), Sami Vatanen (illness), Kyle Palmieri and John Quenneville (both upper body) all returned to the lineup as well.
With New Life Comes New Lines: Blake Coleman, Travis Zajac, and Stefan Noesen remained together on a line as they have in the past few games since Noesen’s return to the lineup from his own extended absence due to an upper body injury. John Hynes declined to separate Travis and the Texans to reunite Miles Wood with the line he did well with earlier in the season, instead pairing Wood with Zacha and Drew Stafford. Nico Hischier centered Kyle Palmieri and Kenny Agostino, and Quenneville returned to the fourth line alongside Kevin Rooney and Michael McLeod. On defense, the top line remained the same with Andy Greene and Damon Severson leading the charge, followed by a Connor Carrick and Steven Santini pairing and Mueller and Vatanen returning together to round out the Devils’ defense. Mackenzie Blackwood got the start in goal. With the returns to the lineup, Blake Pietila was placed on waivers, Kurtis Gabriel and Egor Yakovlev would watch from the box as healthy scratches, joined by Nathan Bastian with a day-to-day upper body injury dating back to March 1st. Taylor Hall (left knee surgery) and Jesper Bratt (left foot/ankle) were also out, both considered unlikely to return this season.
Having been officially eliminated from playoff contention last week (and unofficially much much earlier than that) the biggest takeaway from these games besides the satisfaction of spiting their opponents’ post-season hopes is the continued development of their young players. The return of much of their actual NHL lineup to this afternoon’s game provides the opportunity to finally evaluate more than just their farm system again.
Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha: With Wood finally returning to the lineup again I expected to see him back on a line with Coleman and Zajac. Instead, he lined up next to Pavel Zacha, who I’ll argue plays a much better complement to his skillset than Zajac. Wood returned to the lineup as his usual self, bringing speed and an all-out-effort playing style that combines well with a center that can better match his speed. In addition, Zacha has often shown some excellent playmaking potential in the past and in his return these past two games. Wood has shown a tendency to follow the golden ‘go where the puck is going to be’ rule, which, combined with his speed and Zacha’s passing and ability to keep up with the play, created some entertaining plays today. I’d like to see the two of them continue to play together as this season closes to give that chemistry a chance to develop for next season.
Nico Hischier’s return to the lineup brings not only the Devils’ leading point-scorer but also a huge part of the power play. Hischier has an uncanny ability to quarterback the power play, controlling the puck in tight areas under pressure and making the kind of passes that generate shots rather than more passes, which the PP lines lacked in his absence. Though they were unable to capitalize on any of their five PP opportunities against Arizona, the PP’s control of the zone for a solid ten minutes of man advantage throughout the game played a large part in the momentum and eventual outcome of the game. Hischier’s linemates, Palmieri and Agostino, have worked well together in Hischier’s absence, and they continued to do so with the addition of the Swiss center.
Mike McLeod is still chasing his first goal of the season, an even taller order for the rookie center considering his constant wing and other half Nathan Bastian has been out all month with an upper body injury. Though unable to crack the scoresheet he did play well, recording three shots and at least two excellent scoring opportunities. John Quenneville, who spent the season in the same scoreless boat, finally netted his first goal of the season in his last game, but was again relatively invisible tonight with only one shot on goal. I’d like to hope a goal will turn McLeod’s season around and he can set a good pace to follow up on next season, but if Quenneville is any example it’s likely they’ll both be in Binghamton again come October.
Your Take: What’s your take on this afternoon’s game? Do you like seeing the Devils play spoiler and get some wins again, or are we better off tanking? Who do you see staying in the lineup come next season? What players do you want to see play together before the Devils’ season ends? Thanks to Devin for previewing today’s game, and thanks for reading!